The decision to frack in Lancashire: shale gas is unburnable and must be left in the ground


That Lancashire County Council has been forced to grant Cuadrilla permission to undertake exploratory fracking should come as no surprise. Planning law meant that the Council could only block Cuadrilla on the back of a set of narrow, limited and localised considerations. Furthermore, stacked against the Council was the might of the oil and gas industry, and a central government that wants to go ‘all out’ for shale gas.

The decision will open the floodgates to further applications and drilling in the UK, but will also grow the anti-fracking movement, fuelled by concerns about chemical and radioactive pollution, damage to the rural landscape, harm to aspects of the local social fabric and economy and a belief that local democracy is being overridden.

However, the biggest problem with shale gas is that it is a fossil fuel, producing carbon dioxide on combustion. Methane itself is also one of the most potent greenhouse gases and is emitted directly into the atmosphere from the ground, the well and leaking pipes, valves and connectors. If methane emissions are high enough, this can result in shale gas being just as ‘dirty’ as coal. But even if methane emissions are minimised and new and efficient gas-fired power stations are employed, will shale gas be clean enough to meet our legally binding commitment to cut GHG emissions down to 20% of what they were in 1990 by 2050?

Last July, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) set out to answer this question by examining a variety of future production, regulatory and energy scenarios. It concluded that shale gas production on a significant scale would not be compatible with our carbon targets unless three tests were met.

These tests essentially consisted of tight regulation with a strong legal foundation (to mitigate methane emissions), affordable and available carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies (to reduce carbon emissions) and significant GHG reductions elsewhere in the UK economy. Although the three tests have been mistakenly viewed as a ‘green light’ for fracking, the real message of the CCC is that shale gas production is likely to be incompatible with our climate commitments.

This is even without accounting for the fact that the CCC’s models of future shale gas production underplayed the global warming potential of methane and used projected rates of methane emissions that are conservative.

The fact is that the CCC’s three tests are unlikely to be met. It’s hard to see tight regulation being imposed upon the shale gas industry by this government, and the prospects for CCS remain unconvincing: large-scale CCS projects worldwide have actually reduced in number since 2012 and the UK government itself has pulled its own promise of funding to support CCS development.

The CCC has also raised concerns about a number of climate policies and actions are at risk of failure. These include the Agricultural Action Plan, policies to improve the fuel efficiency of HGVs, the Renewable Heat Incentive post-2016, Zero Carbon Homes and the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation.

But even with CCS and low rates of methane emissions, the ecological and economic viability of new gas-fired power stations is questionable beyond 2030. Any potential for natural gas to support a transition towards a low-carbon energy system is time-limited and only holds true if an increase in gas consumption occurs alongside a much greater reduction in coal consumption, a scenario that excludes the UK because coal has already been largely phased out. More worryingly, the development of new gas reserves could retard the development of renewable energy systems, and potentially lead to more global warming than would have occurred otherwise.

But the danger of shale gas from a climate perspective is even more serious if we consider the fact that our targets for reducing GHG emissions are inadequate and accept a 63% chance of exceeding 2°C. This degree of risk is crazy considering the potential catastrophic effects of global warming. In any case our carbon budgets need to be revised in light of last year’s Paris Accord at which countries committed to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Importantly, the CCC did not consider the impact of UK shale gas production on the global energy system. David Mackay, the former Chief Scientific Adviser to DECC noted that “If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run”.

 Developing a new fossil fuel reserve does not send a positive signal especially when the UK’s current carbon budget is already considered unfair because it makes little allowance for historical responsibility for GHG emissions, or the UK’s superior financial and technical capability compared to other countries. Our emissions targets are also based on ‘territorial emissions’ which do not account for GHGs emitted elsewhere to produce goods and commodities that are consumed here.

Given what we know about climate change and the inadequacy of our current GHG emissions reduction targets, shale gas development in the UK cannot be justified. The world already has an abundance of ‘unburnable’ fossil fuel. Instead we should focus all efforts on the development and deployment of renewable energy, low-carbon heating technologies, reductions in carbon-intensive consumption patterns and improvements in home insulation.

It is far too risky to bet on unproven technologies and future discoveries to prevent catastrophic climate change, a position that the oil and gas industry is attempting to foster through their immense lobbying power and slick marketing campaigns.